A train that hasn’t run for 40 years is suddenly on the tracks again, with a sinister new conductor. A foul-mouthed police officer tries to solve the mystery behind inhuman, skeletal corpses that suddenly begin showing up around town. A little boy’s life is threatened by his two older brothers, one of whom died years ago. A lucid dreamer finds his nightmares following him back into the real world.
What kind of book would you think this was based on the above paragraph? If you’re like I was when this showed up in my Amazon recommendations, you’re probably thinking it’s a short story collection, and you’d be right, kind of. After all, that’s exactly how Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism is advertised. The stories can be read in any order you’d like, and each tale can be read on its own.
Ultimately, though, it’s actually not a short story collection; it’s a novel.
That’s right. Even though they don’t sound like they’d fit together, the bizarre, horrifying stories in this book all tie into each other. In the case of two stories, the relationship to the others is merely thematic, but the rest either share characters or reference events and places from one of the other tales, resulting in a larger, overarching narrative.
And what is this larger narrative? Read on.
Just like a ventriloquist manipulates the actions of his or her dummy, a malevolent power manipulates people and events from behind the scenes; they gain more and more control of the world…and lay waste to it. Some characters are separated from loved ones; others find their bodies forced to commit heinous acts; still others are physically twisted into oozing, nauseating mockeries of anatomy. The worst fate, however, awaits the one who dares to seek out this entity, pull back the curtain and divine its secrets.
The book’s pessimistic, bleak outlook is one I personally disagree with (I’m also not sure if Padgett himself even holds these views), but it’s an outlook that–agree with it or not–really makes these stories unforgettable. It’s Cosmic Horror in the truest sense of the term.
The writing style varies with each story, which really says something about Padgett’s skill. Some stories are written in a more-contemporary style, sometimes containing F and S bombs (which, while I try not to say them myself, don’t really bother me) or taking Jesus’s name in vain (which does bother me, but it’s thankfully the least-used of the swears). Others don’t read that differently from long-standing classics in the field.
If you check it out, be warned. I’ll take no responsibility for any sleep lost should you be foolish enough to read it at night. 🙂